Over at the Atlantic, JoshuaFoust takes issue with the new Stanford and NYU report, Living Under Drones, and argues that drone strikes are the least-bad option in Northwest Pakistan. Says Foust:
In the short run, there aren't better choices than drones. . . .
Drones represent the choice with the smallest set of drawbacks and adverse consequences. Reports like Living Under Drones highlight the need for both more transparency from the US and Pakistani governments, and for drawing attention to the social backlash against their use in Pakistan. But they do not definitively build a case against drones in general. Without a better alternative, drones are here to stay.
But Foust is suffering from at least two ailments common to the debate about drone strikes in Pakistan. The first is subscribing to the premise that action—specifically U.S. action—is required; the second is lumping all drone strikes against all targets in Northwest Pakistan together.
Under the first ailment, observers and policymakers presuppose that the situation in Northwest Pakistan demands kinetic action. Across the spectrum of vectors by which to deliver that kinetic action—drone strikes, U.S. military incursions, Pakistani military actions—drones offer the least-bad option because they offer a high degree of precision and the impact from individual strikes is fairly circumscribed. However, it is not entirely clear that military action is required—and, even if some action is required, it is not clear that the scale of U.S. action in Pakistan is appropriate. First, Northwest Pakistan is home to a mélange of non-state actors pursuing varied agendas, targeting different populations. The correct approach to addressing these various actors is almost certainly not uniform. Instead, responses ought to be highly contextualized—drones, because of their relative ease of use, offer a low-cost alternative to formulating complex policy. Second, to the extent that Foust is right and all of these actors exist due to “the Pakistani government’s reluctance to grant the FATA the political inclusion necessary for normal governance or to establish an effective police force,” drone strikes offer a solution wholly inapposite to the problem at hand. Rather than in any way addressing the underlying causes that Foust identifies, drones strikes substitute a tactic for a strategy and act as a mere—if perpetual—stop-gap.
The second ailment that Foust and many others suffer from is lumping the myriad non-state actors in Northwest Pakistan together. This facet, combined with the penchant for painting the targets of drone strikes with a broad brush, leads to statements like:
The targets of drone strikes in Pakistan sponsor insurgents in the region that kill U.S. soldiers and destabilize the Pakistani state (that is why Pakistani officials demand over targeting). They cannot simply be left alone to continue such violent attacks.
The groups targeted by drone strikes in Pakistan include al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Haqqani Network, and many others. These groups don’t have different names just to confuse the West. No, they have different names because theyare distinct organizations, with distinct orders of battle, distinct agendas,and different enemies. The last is perhaps the most important piece. By treating these groups as an undifferentiated mass, the United States tends to drive them together—making them stronger—where it could potentially (in some cases, easily) drive a wedge between them.
More to the point, however, the targets themselves are not all “sponsor[ing] insurgents.” The vast majority of the militants killed by drone strikes are not leaders. The vast majority of those fighters killed are mere foot soldiers. This fact alone begs the question of why drones are employed so frequently. It is perhaps an inefficient use of resources to employ a drone—relatively cheap though it may be—to kill a grunt.
Fundamentally, drone strikes are here to stay not because they are the least bad option but because the problems in Northwest Pakistan are complicated and, potentially, intractable. Addressing those problems is both difficult and not the responsibility of the United States—it is, instead, the responsibility of the Pakistani state. In so far as those festering problems present an immediate threat to the United States, and the Pakistani state is unwilling to address it, then the United States should—and has every right to—avail itself of self-defense. However, rightly employed, these invocations would almost certainly occur far less frequently than do drone strikes today.